When I think about my own happiness, and when I talk to other people about happiness, I often find myself thinking about regret. Sometime, when I’m considering a course of action, I think about what I’ll regret, or not regret, in the future. What would my future-self think?
Along those lines, one major benefit of doing our best is that it alleviates potential regret. If I can tell myself, “Well, I did the very best I could,” I feel less regret. Say with my book Forty Ways to Look at JFK. That book did not, as they diplomatically say in the book business, “find its audience.” And yet I loved writing that book so much that I can’t regret doing it. And I made that book the best book that I possibly could, so I don’t regret anything I did or didn’t do.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of the work of writer Amy Tan. I was very struck by a passage from her essay “Inferior Decorating” from the book The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life (Amazon, Bookshop). Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club (Amazon, Bookshop), had been a gigantic hit. In this essay, she writes about working on her second novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife (Amazon, Bookshop).
I chose an unnamed goddess while writing my then untitled second book. I didn’t think it was good manners to ask her for anything as crass as good reviews and placement on the bestseller lists. And anyway, if she was anything like my mother, my goddess had never even heard of The New York Times. In the end, I asked only that I be able to write the best book I could, and that no matter what happened to it, I would have no regrets, no sorrows. I called my statue Lady Sorrowfree and titled the last chapter [of The Kitchen God’s Wife] after her.
This insight struck me as so wise. Amy Tan didn’t ask for an outcome, for some specific metric of success. She asked that she feel no regrets. In this world, we often can’t control outcomes, and we have more control over whether we’ll feel regret.